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June 5, 2024

There’s no such thing as a free lift

Greg Herold-Howes


I recently secured the acquittal of a client in what I understand to be the first case of its kind in Jersey – the prosecution of a person for providing ‘Jersey lifts’. 

This is a controversial topic, which over the years has been the subject of much debate. On the one hand, it is seen by users as community assistance, where a lift can be requested at seemingly any time in return for a contribution towards the cost of the journey (the word payment is deliberately avoided here).

On the other, the practice raises serious questions regarding passenger safety and insurance, and causes frustration for those who work within the regulated taxi industry.

Whilst many describe the giving of lifts as operating within a grey area, sitting somewhere between lift sharing and a cab service, I do not agree. The law is clear on what is required in order to make out the offence. Those offering lifts should be aware that they are at risk of prosecution, with a maximum £10,000 fine.

In addition, offering lifts may trigger connected offences such as driving without insurance. 

One of the reasons for the rise of ‘Jersey lifts’ is that demand for taxis frequently outweighs supply. On busy nights in town, the wait for a taxi can be a long one; perhaps less of an issue in the summer, but a grim experience when the weather is poor. For many, ‘Jersey lifts’ seem to be the solution. 

At the time of writing, there are over 40,000 members in the two principle ‘Jersey lifts’ groups on Facebook (obviously there will be some membership crossover). It is an active community, with a network of drivers offering lifts or passengers requesting them. One of those groups states on its frontpage that ‘it’s not illegal to do free lifts’. Whilst that disclaimer may be accurate, the reality is rather more complicated. 

Legitimate, not-for-profit lift sharing – for example where friends might contribute towards the cost of a journey – is lawful and specifically permitted in certain circumstances under the law. What amounts to ‘profit’ however is up for debate. 

Critics of the practice say that the taxi-industry is for valid reasons heavily regulated in terms of both entry to the profession and what drivers are able to charge passengers. PSV badges are only issued by the Inspector for Motor Traffic provided certain conditions are satisfied, with matters such as the fitness (physical and character) and capability of the driver being considered. Their conduct can be regulated and sanctions issued or a badge withdrawn. 

A person with a poor driving record would likely struggle to obtain a badge to transport members of the public. By contrast, with ‘Jersey lifts’, passengers (who may have been drinking or otherwise potentially vulnerable) have very little information about their driver. They cannot have the same confidence that the standards which regulation provides are met. 

In addition, there are serious potential insurance implications. Much will turn on the wording of the policy but underwriters may decline claims where they reach the view that otherwise insured drivers were driving for hire or reward, an aspect excluded under most standard motor policies. That creates a significant risk for those providing legitimate ride sharing in the event of an accident and also should have a cautionary effect on those seeking lifts. Should the worst happen, they might not be able to claim against the driver’s insurance for compensation or medical costs.

The prosecution in my recent case contended that my client was driving a public service vehicle without authority in breach of the Motor Traffic (Jersey) Law 1935 and that there was an agreement with passengers, from which a profit would be made. The Magistrate, having heard the evidence and submissions on the law, concluded that the prosecution had failed to make out its case to the criminal standard and returned not guilty verdicts. There will however be other examples where the facts will allow a successful prosecution.

I have no doubt that there are drivers out there who are breaching the law and regularly profiting from offering lifts. If caught and successfully prosecuted, they will face sanction. A potential solution might be an amendment to the law to widen the scope for which a driver might be prosecuted. For now, despite the risks faced by both drivers and passengers, the practice shows no sign of abating.

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